Creating Acoustic Privacy In Healthcare Environments

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For nearly 50 years, medical research experts have been writing articles focused on the negative affect of hospital noise on patients and medical personnel. With the passage of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), it is now more important that ever for hospital administrators to address the problem as the problem can now impact their bottom line. 

Reports dating back as far as 1963 testify to the seriousness. The primary patient complaint is distraction and annoyance caused by noise from the activity of staff and other patients as well as the noise from monitoring equipment, both from within and outside the patient’s room. Most reputable health experts, including the World Health Organization, agree a noise problem lengthens the recovery time for patients. The most important factor is sleep deprivation, and the harmful effects of inadequate sleep are well documented. 

Additionally, hospitals struggle with maintaining patient confidentiality as they are not designed to protect patients’ conversations from being overheard or to minimize loud sounds from adjacent rooms and noisy medical monitoring equipment. These noise distractions have an adverse effect on the care provided by the hospital and reduce patient satisfaction. This patient dissatisfaction can impact the hospitals Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements. The Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems Survey (HCAHPS) question number nine is directly relevant to the "Quietness of the Hospital Environment". Failing to address the issue in any manner can lead to the loss of large revenue dollars unnecessarily. 

The root cause can be found in hospital architectural design. Most lack any acoustical considerations for noise. One way to address the issue is to change the structure, thicker walls, solid doors, and more sound-absorbing materials but in today's architecture, architects favor more open designs. These new open concepts make speech privacy problems so vexing that architectural design firms need to start consulting with acoustical experts to improve the quietness of the hospital.

One of the easiest and most cost-effective methods to address the quite hospital is speech privacy technology. Speech privacy technology  electronically introduces a steady, constant sound that masks unwanted noise created by conversations, equipment, and the normal operation of a hospital.

Most people unfamiliar with the science of sound believe the problem is the overall high level of noise. However, people commonly sleep very soundly in aircraft cabins where the noise level is high but constant. Several researchers have determined the magnitude of the change in level, regardless of its average level, was more impactful than the average level of a steady sound.

Another pointed out that intermittent and impulsive noises are more disturbing than continuous noise of equivalent energy. In addition, meaningful sounds, such as speech, are more likely to produce sleep disruption than sounds with neutral content. Thus, the problem is not the overall sound level, but the changes in level that attract the patient’s attention. 

When sound masking is applied, the intermittent sound level must be above the normal steady background sound level in order to attract that attention.

How does sound masking work? It does not eliminate intruding sounds but rather covers them up (masks other sounds). The same concept is found in one-way windows (visual masking) and room deodorants (olfactory masking). The masking sound is steady in level, neutral in spectrum, and conveys no information. The loudness of the sound is determined by the loudness of the intruding noise. 

Sound masking has been proven to be a valuable and cost-effective tool to reduce distracting and annoying sounds, thus improving the care and recovery of the patient and is an essential tool for healthcare facilities today.